Seven Clowns Before the Explosion
This is what it is all about, he knows: improbability. It is the joke that this whole circus is built around: a tiger, an elephant, a hot air balloon, right here in Des Moines or Indianapolis or Altoona. Seven clowns and a monkey piling out of a car, one after the other in a tangle of funny shoes and makeup and hobo clothes, and just when you think there surely couldn't be more room in that car, here comes another one.
He is driving, like always, curling the little car in ever-tightening spirals, pushing it, feeling the centrifugal force and allowing the audience to blur in his vision, a whirl of light and color, color and light, a beautiful hallucination, one of many that exist only within the small universe of the circus.
It is the only universe that matters to him and right now he is its god. All eyes are focused on the tiny car that he navigates through the tight, intricate web that is the Astounding Traveling Circus of the World: the elephants off to the right, the center ring to his left, the trapeze artists and jugglers milling off to the side, the zebras and the lion and the tiger and the poor bedraggled dancing bear, the mini-hot air balloon that will carry the Lewis the Conductor to the rafters for the grand finale.
He accelerates even as he pulls the car in an increasingly unlikely circle. This is what it is all about, he knows: improbability. It is the joke that this whole circus is built around: a tiger, an elephant, a hot air balloon, right here in Des Moines or Indianapolis or Altoona. Seven clowns and a monkey piling out of a car, one after the other in a tangle of funny shoes and makeup and hobo clothes, and just when you think there surely couldn't be more room in that car, here comes another one.
He feels Stumpy’s palm on his leg and taps once, a warning. His hands tighten on the wheel. Like the kiss wasn’t unprofessional enough. Should never have taken a boyfriend in the circus, he thinks, much less in his own shop.
The audience grows louder, applauding and whooping and whistling, building to the inevitable conclusion. He drives, the calm eye of this particular hurricane. It is what he does. He is a professional.
He would never tell Stumpy, of course, but this, right now, the actual act itself – the audience and the costume and the stupid routine – is the only thing he truly loves.
The car might as well be his own heart, tightening, going faster and faster, bump bump bump, threatening to careen out of control at any moment. And he is supposed to concentrate on the audience, the show, with Arial’s thighs pushing tight against him?
It is all he can do to fight the erection – not another night like Cleveland, a biological disaster that almost got both of them fired. He doesn’t even need the job – Jesus, the job is shit. He could be making better money doing customer service again. But he needs this: the two of them, literally whirling through the world, city to city, thigh to thigh, heart to heart.
He casts a conciliatory glance to his left, but Arial is stone-faced, businesslike as always. And it makes his heart whirl and plunge again to think that he’s done anything that could upset this thing that they have, this delicate balance like the reeling car itself – out of control and beautiful.
It was just a peck, a good luck kiss, and he doesn’t think anybody else saw a thing. But still, he understands that there are lines that simply cannot be crossed. The circus is a thing of the past and this applies as well to the internal politics, the tightly wound social fabric of the Traveling Astounding Circus of the World. To Arial, a lifer who has never had an email account or owned a computer, a man from a different time, a man who, if there was such a thing, could easily be elected mayor of the Circus, any rupture in this fabric is a Hindenberg occasion.
He breathes in and out. It will be okay. It will be okay because it has to be.
Feel your character. Find your center. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be here now. Find your center. Feel your character.
This is not where he thought acting was going to take him, but he reminds himself again that this is a career, a calling, that he is in it for the long haul. He is a running a marathon, even if the rest of them are running a sprint, looking for an easy check, drinking and screwing their way across the country in a rambling swath of minor league cities.
Sometimes it is difficult to keep all of this in perspective.
It is the same every night, in every city: the same car, the same clowns, Arial at the wheel, Stumpy mooning to his right, Shoopy and Poppy and Franny and Shorty and Nibbles jammed into the back. The smell of popcorn and elephant shit, the car’s exhaust, Stumpy’s Axe body spray, Shoopy’s sweet alcohol breath and the monkey’s musky stink fogging in from the back seat.
Breathe in and out. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.
What is your character’s motivation? Clifford is a sad clown. Clifford was sexually abused by an uncle who just happened to be a clown. Every night, the young boy would hope against hope that tonight would be the night he would not hear the heavy slap of the clown shoes making their way down the stairs. Every night, the crisp clip-clop of cheap plastic on wood. Every night, the boy would pull up the covers and pretend he was dead, and then, when this failed, he would close his eyes and wait for it to be over.
Everything Clifford does – from his facial expressions to the way he trudges across the stage – stems from this one thing. After every performance, when they are stuffed back into the car and the rest of the clowns are high-fiving or breathing a sigh of relief, unscrewing their flasks or screwing up their courage for the night ahead, Clifford weeps.
There is a price he pays for this – the man behind the clown, the actor. It is a price he gladly pays, like those before him. He is an artist.
He wishes he could take just one more nip, but it won’t do, not again. He burps and takes care to push his Rumplemintz breath downward and to the side, away from Arial, who flat out won’t put up with any bullshit. This means he is exhaling directly onto Shorty, of course, but Shorty is way past caring.
Shoopy cares just enough to not get fired. He is forty years old and knows who he is.
There are not many jobs that align well with his lifestyle, literally no other jobs where being at least a little off center, a little buzzed, actually improves your performance. Of course, the problem is keeping to just a little off center.
He likes the circus well enough, better than the Xerox job or the sales floor at Best Buy. They travel, work at night. Short hours and a per diem. Plenty of young people who like to hit the bars at night, or play cards in their trailers, easy enough to find a party and not feel so old and used up and stupid about it.
He is comfortable in his own skin. He is not going to be Mick Jagger or Derrick Jeter, isn’t even going to be one of those guys in the Memphis Horns, or a journeyman shortstop, a bit player in some bad sitcom. And so this: one of seven men in makeup and funny shoes, jammed into a car.
It isn’t exactly a rock star existence, not where he thought he would be, but it’s better than nine to five. As long as he can keep it to just a little off center, he’ll be fine for now. Still, one more nip would have been nice.
He was supposed to be an athlete. A professional. First in districts senior year in high school, gymnastics scholarship to Ohio State, Olympic qualifier. And then the fall on the uneven bars, a shattered forearm, failing grades, the ad on craigslist and here he is, twenty two years old and packed into a car between an alcoholic and a midget, wondering if he’ll be able to get the smell of monkey off his forearm before the cast party tonight. Where are they? Pennsylvania or Ohio, rolling mountains and pickup trucks. Altoona, maybe.
He needs to get his resume together. Learn HTML. Maybe art school? He always did enjoy drawing, at least before gymnastics took over all his time. But it’s all computers now. Maybe that’s good. Maybe not.
Arial is driving a little faster than usual. Pissed off because his little boyfriend kissed him before the show. Like everybody doesn’t know they’re together. Like anybody gives a shit who is with who, what they’re doing in the privacy of their own trailers. They are grown men in makeup who perform the same awful carnie routine every night – every single night for the past, what, like, million years?
Tonight is the night. Get his resume together. That’s the first thing.
Of course he’s named Shorty. Shorty the Fucking Clown. He had wanted to be Buffalo Bill, had a whole cowboy clown thing happening – a real one, having just come off the rodeo circuit, healed now but the crack in his tailbone still aches if he sits for more than an hour – but then, there they are in the employment office and, like always, like elementary school and high school and the job in the Buttercrust factory, like every time he walks into a fucking bar, he’s Shorty.
Life is truly nasty, brutish and, fuck fuck fuck…short. One long string of stature jokes and imbeciles and drunks, one after the other, each dumber and meaner and taller than the last.
He allows his body to go slack as the car winds in ever smaller circles, accelerating, moving faster, tempting fate to lift it off the ground. He can picture it – the crash, the tangle of limbs, the gasps from the crowd, blood and bones and gristle and fire.
His eyes go unfocused and the audience is nothing but a whirl. The monkey on his lap – of course, the little person has to carry the goddam monkey, right, there’s a symmetry in that? – clutches his arm tighter. Too tight. The monkey needs a bath, a nail clipping. His monkeynails dig into Shorty’s forearm, leaving eight perfectly matched little cuts and two thumbsize bruises.
Opposable thumbs, he thinks.
Blood oozes. Shorty closes his eyes and feels the little car go faster.
Bananas! Biscuits. Soon they will feed Nibbles. They will do what they do and then they will feed Nibbles. He is sitting in the moving thing, on the way to do what they do. Sitting on the lap of the small man.
The moving thing goes fast. It turns hard and Nibbles holds onto the small man’s arm. The moving thing is going faster than usual. Nibbles is scared. Biscuits! Nibbles is scared.
These homosexuals have not accepted Jesus as their lord and savior. It is a mockery, a sin. This entire circus is going to hell and nobody cares. He ticks the sins off on his fingers: divination and sorcery, fornication, alcohol abuse, blasphemy, atheism, impurity against nature.
Mortal sins, all of them. The circus is a literal Sodom and Gomorrah.
He has been a Christian for one hundred and forty seven days. At first it was a trial, then a gift, and now, lately, a responsibility.
Of course he suspected, had heard the whispers, seen the winks, the way Stumpy’s hand lingered on Arial’s thigh. But now he knows. His heart is still beating wildly. Impurity against nature. It is the perfect description. Two men kissing, their stubble rubbing up against one another, cracked lips caked with pancake makeup. It is one of the most disturbing scenes he has ever witnessed, and his reaction is physical, a roil within, a stone he knows he must pass.
“And for their sins they were destroyed by brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven.”
The car is hurtling toward the big finish. Off to the side, the hot air balloon filling with gas. The car pulls in tighter, coming around for one more circle. He leans forward, past the gymnast and the midget, he pushes his arm past the drunk, over the shoulder of the homosexual. The air balloon is yards away. He turns the wheel.
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This story was previously published at (now defunct) Dark Sky Magazine. It is part of a collection in progress, Massive Cleansing Fire, in which every story ends in a massive cleansing fire.